Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Jungle
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Jonathan Nyati and Ben Turner
Photo by Little Fang
Some of the most beautiful, dramatic, thrilling—and frightening—experiences happen at the edge of things. Where sea meets land, desire meets obsession, power meets resistance. In The Jungle, by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, currently playing at the Curran, everything is edges. Its characters: refugees from war, poverty, and strife across Africa and the Middle East. Its physical location: a muddy spot in Calais, France, hard by the motorway and just across the Channel from the UK, the refugees' longed-for ultimate destination, a fata morgana of asylum shimmering just out of their reach. And the borders they have erected in their makeshift community of tents and their thrown-together shacks of particle board and tarpaulin—edges that divide the Sudanese from the Ethiopians, the Afghanis from the Pakistanis, each group forming its own country within the larger camp.

All these edges smashing into each other in chaotic but thrilling ways make The Jungle a theatrical experience not to be missed.

The Jungle was first performed at the Young Vic in London, and later moved to the West End for a nearly three-month run at the Playhouse Theatre. At the Curran, impresaria Carole Shorenstein Hays and her team have transformed the space entirely to create a simulacrum of what the original Calais Jungle was like. If you choose the mezzanine, you'll have the advantage of a broader view of the action on the floor (and a far more comfortable seat), but you'll be missing out on the energy and immersive nature of the experience. When you enter the floor seating, you're stepping into the Afghan restaurant of Salar (Ben Turner), with long benches and tables laid out across the entire theater. At one end lies Salar's bedroom and storage area, as well as the restaurant's bare bones—but fully functional—kitchen. If you're lucky (and about one in three are), fresh slices of naan straight from the oven will make their way to your seat.

On the floor, the performers will go about their business not as if you aren't there, but as though you are simply another member of their community. You will be recognized, sometimes spoken to, warned, or asked for your opinion. "Immersive theatre" can be oppressive—or even cringe-inducing if done poorly—but here it feels completely organic. A community has been thrown together out of materials on hand, and audience members are just as much citizens of the Jungle as the performers on "stage."

There is a story here, of the conflict between the French government and the refugees who resist their often violent evictions and the handful of Brits who come to their aid, but it's not the most important thing about The Jungle. For there are dozens of stories happening simultaneously, perhaps even thousands if one thinks of The Jungle as representing the story of every person who passed through its confines, for the play has that kind of expansive, inclusive nature. At the curtain call, the performers seemed to stay in character, as though asking us to think of them not as playing a role, but simply as other human beings, just as The Jungle asks us to think of its refugee citizens not as foreign abstractions of strife and unrest, but simply human beings looking to survive in a world that can be chaotic and cruel.

The sound design (by Paul Arditti) is disruptive, intrusive, and occasionally shocking (and bone-rattling) in its volume. Trucks, trains, bulldozers—all keep the residents of the Jungle (including the audience) on edge. The performers (two of whom were actual residents of the Jungle) do a brilliant job of expressing the stress of their life on the edge. You see the worry lines, the ever-shifting eyes watching for potential danger, the tension in the muscles—and the connection of community, the release of stress in music and dance, and the satisfaction that comes from simple human pleasures: friendships, hugs, sharing a table, and expressions of joy when they seemingly have no reason for it.

It is all too easy to see the parallels between The Jungle and the challenges facing those seeking asylum at our southern border, including how the French worked to make the Jungle less appealing to discourage others from trying to reach it, just as the current administration's policy of family separation is designed to make seeking asylum in the United States more frightening and therefore less attractive.

But The Jungle, for all its hard truths, is less about the horrors faced by refugees (and there are many, encapsulated most touchingly by the story of 17-year-old Okot's (John Pfumojena) trans-African, trans-Mediterranean nightmare journey), and more about the all too often ephemeral nature of "home."

The Jungle, through May 19, 2019, at the Curran, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $59-$165, and can be purchased by visiting, calling 415-358-1220, or visiting the box office between 10:00am and 6:00pm Monday-Friday.